What if the world were run by chimps — chimps pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, chimps dumping toxic waste into water supplies, chimps engaging in violent terrorism and military attacks, chimps bankrupting businesses and countries and families…. Wait. The world is run by chimps who are doing all those things and more.
There’s not a lot of difference in the genetic blueprints of chimpanzees and humans. Their DNA sequences are 98 percent identical. Chimps are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas. In fact, some scientists argue that chimps and humans are so closely related that they should be classed in the same genus, Homo. The Hominidae family would include humans (Homo sapiens), common chimpanzees (Homo troglodytes), bonobo chimps (Homo paniscus), Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), and other human-like fossil species.
If you think of humans as having an inner chimp to contend with, a lot of what goes on in the world makes more sense. Of course we thoughtlessly destroy the environment, and in so doing our childrens’ futures, to satisfy our appetites today, and of course we disregard the feelings of, and steal from, and act belligerently towards chimps outside our group, even while we dote on those closest to us. We’re chimps! There’s just a thin skin of humanity covering the primitive beneath — a shortsighted, greedy, ravenous, quick to anger, cunning, vicious, tribal, and territorial animal.
I hasten to concede that humans are capable of creating and appreciating beautiful artistic works. And they have been known to extend touching acts of kindness and charity towards their fellow humans. And they have built breathtaking structures and cities and civilizations. And they excel at designing and crafting ingenious technological devices. And they express infinitely spiritual yearnings and inspired revelations. Do these attributes and achievements emerge from and define the 2 percent difference between humans and chimps?
Probably, but it hardly matters, because there’s so little human to work with and so much chimp within human-chimps that the former is all too often compelled to serve the latter. Hence, some of the most ingenious among us are driven to devise evermore powerful weaponry, to create machines and systems that dig deeper wells, level higher mountains, cast wider nets, raise more livestock per pen, generate more crops per acre, assemble more computers per man hour, and so on. Persuasive communicators are harnessed to produce mind-bending propaganda that has us wondering who to believe, them or our own lying eyes. We’re told that global warming is a hoax, even though we can see an upward temperature trend in a hundred years of data, and melting glaciers, and seasons changing, and insects and animals migrating in response to warming. We’re told that hydrofracking doesn’t pollute groundwater, even though residents near drilling can smell and taste the chemicals flowing from their faucets. We’re told that it’s perfectly safe to eat seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, even though the effects of oil and dispersants can still be seen in eyeless shrimp, clawless crabs, tumor-ridden fish, and other deformed sea life. We’re told to cut back on health and education expenses so the military can buy expensive new high-tech weapons, even though it’s obvious that we already have enough guns and bombs to obliterate the world. We’re told that the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns are over and there’s nothing to worry about, even though radioactive fallout is detected around the world, and 85 times more cesium than was released from Chernobyl still sits in damaged spent fuel pools, bouncing around in the frequent earthquakes at the Fukushima site.
But the most outrageous lie, the assumption that is the very foundation of our human-chimp civilization — its politics, its economics, its lifestyle, even its religions — is that we can and must continue to reproduce and consume forever. Think about that. No limits to population growth, or to oil, natural gas, minerals, or metals that can be extracted from the Earth, or to forests that can be felled or burnt down, or to prairies and pastures that can be paved over for houses and highways, or to fish that can be caught, or to fresh water that can be pumped, or to fertile topsoil that can be planted with crops. No limits to the ability of the Earth’s atmosphere, land surface, aquifers, rivers, lakes, and oceans to absorb our toxic waste without ill effects. Of course, evidence to the contrary is all around us. Every culture of bacteria in a Petri dish eventually consumes all available resources and dies out. Every civilization before ours has run up against its own limits and collapsed. Some individual humans can see this reality, but en masse, like a large group of chimps, we are preoccupied with details of procreation and eating and grooming and entertaining and fighting, somehow failing to notice the big storm clouds gathering around us.
Since ignoring reality doesn’t make it go away, the human-chimp is facing a series of challenges to its way of life, indeed to the world as it knows it. Actually, it’s worse than a “series,” which might be manageable one-by-one. Instead, we face multiple, simultaneous crises, a dozen or more, the results of human aspirations distorted by chimp appetites. (Click here for an overview of the crises and here for more detailed information.) So we return to the question at the top of the page — “Is the remaining 2% enough to save humanity?” I have rewritten my answer several times. My indecision must be a human frailty, because the chimp within has little doubt. “No,” he says. “No way. Not even close. You cannot change chimp nature.”
NOTE: The photo above shows the first hominid in space, an honor accorded to a chimpanzee named Ham (an acronym for Holloman Aerospace Medical Center). Hollow man, indeed.